Hi all, Chris here to talk about fun music stuff. So, I got involved midway in the development of Happiness when Tim came to me and asked “Hey Chris, wanna write some music for a game I’m making?” Tim and I had been collaborating musically through our band David Lee for quite a while, so I was happy to accept.
Wait, so how do we write video game music?
Starting out, composing instrumental music posed a unique challenge compared to writing songs for a set of lyrics. On one hand, you have more freedom to experiment with weird progressions, strange time signatures, and interesting instrumentation when you don’t have to worry about how to fit a particular set of lyrics over the song. On the other hand, without lyrics you have to find other ways to keep the song interesting.
Video game music has its own unique characteristics when compared to other instrumental music, like movie soundtracks or electronic dance music, etc… Each song usually only needs to be about a minute and a half at most – however, you also need to be able to loop the song continuously for however long it takes the player to complete that section of the game. Also, you have to keep in mind that in most cases the music takes a back-seat to the gameplay. Because of this, you want to avoid too many jarring stops, key changes, dropped beats, etc… because they may start to get old when looped ad infinitum, and they can distract the player from the game itself.
Like a movie soundtrack, you want the feel of the music to match the intended mood for the part of the game it’s playing during; if the character is in a dark, spooky location, you wouldn’t want to have a really upbeat major key song playing. Instead this kind of location would likely call for music that is tense and ominous. There’s all sorts of ways this could be achieved – sections that briefly spike in volume, instruments that start and stop abruptly, maybe some diminished chords – or all of these together. The song “Illumination” for the stage Fear House is a good example of this – notice the start-and-stop chord strikes in the last section, and the dark minor tone.
Another important aspect of creating the soundtrack is choosing the instruments to use, which in turn can also have a large effect on the mood and tone of a song. With Happiness, we wanted to make the player feel like they were playing an old platforming game like Super Mario Bros 3. To accomplish this, we decided to use a program called Famitracker. Famitracker presented some interesting limitations that in a way may have helped give the soundtrack some commonality as a whole while also challenging us to really think about what parts of each song were most important.
The Dreaded Famitracker
Famitracker is a sort of music sequencing software that simulates the capabilities of the NES/Famicom sound chips. You start out with 5 tracks which imitate what was available on the standard NES sound card – two square wave channels, a triangle wave (usually used as the bass track), a “noise” track (for percussive effects), and a DPCM channel that could play samples. Famitracker also contains settings for a few of the various expansion chips that were used in later NES cartridges to add to the capabilities of the standard system – we decided to use the MMC5 expansion chip, which gave us an additional 2 square wave tracks. We never ended up using the DPCM sample track for Happiness, so this essentially left us with 6 tracks to work with.
It took a little while to get used to using Famitracker – all the notes are entered by keyboard, and songs are structured using “patterns” for each track, identified by numbers, which can be sequenced together. My first test using famitracker was creating the theme song, which we actually stole from a B-side David Lee song that Tim decided to scrap the lyrics on. Coincidentally (or not), the song’s name was also “Happiness”. “Happiness” is not an overly complex song in terms of number of instruments – there’s an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, and vocals (which became the lead melody for the instrumental). That’s 5 tracks – no problem, right? We’ve got a track to spare. But hold on – remember, in Famitracker each channel can only play one note at a time (except potentially the DPCM track). Now consider that every chord the acoustic guitar plays contains 4-6 notes playing at the same time, and the electric guitar sometimes uses double stops (2 notes at a time), and the drummer could be playing a hi-hat, crash and bass kick all at the same time – now we’re up to 12 notes = 12 tracks. So what are you supposed to do?
Music theory, whether you like it or not
Well, here’s where a little music theory can come in handy. Let’s take that guitar chord as an example – let’s say we’re playing a G major chord. In terms of separate notes, G major actually only consists of three notes – the root (G), the third (B), and the fifth (D). A full six note version of this chord on the guitar may contain octaves of each of these notes, but at its core it’s still just 3 notes. Depending on what the other instruments are playing, you can potentially get rid of one or two more of these – if your bass is already playing the root, than you can have the rhythym guitar skip the root and play just the 3rd and 5th of the chord.
The drums presented some similar challenges. The noise track is essentially what it sounds like – white noise. In order to get it sounding like a drum set, you have to alter the pitch and settings for each note to imitate a kick, hihat, etc… Also, since you only have one track to use, you can’t just have the hihat going steady over the rest of the beats. You have to pick and choose at each beat which part of the drum set is most important. In most cases, the bass kicks and snare take precedence over the hihat, and crashes take precedence over both of those – so, the hihat often only ends up playing during the off beats, and the bass kick or snare may not play on a certain beat when it normally would because there’s a crash there. If done right, though, the brain can help fill in these gaps and make it sound like a full drumkit.
Dreamy guitar playing
The “Dream Station” theme was the first song I worked on starting from scratch. Coming up with the progression and melody for this was mostly a matter of messing around with my guitar. I ended up recording a rough draft in Cubase, which helped me organize the song before attempting it in Famitracker. This is a practice I’ve since used for a good portion of the video game music I’ve worked on. Since this was for the stage hub, we were looking for a fairly mellow, light-hearted mood. The song uses a mostly major-sounding progression, and the swing rhythm gives it a bouncy feel. I used essentially the same method as with “Happiness” to separate out the important parts when bringing the song into Famitracker, and then Tim added a drum track to round it out.
And now for something completely different…
The last track that I helped work on was for Asphyxia Cavern. This song had an interesting evolution that has been typical of a lot of the songs that I’ve worked on with Tim in the past for our band. I again started by hashing something out on guitar, though this time I skipped over Cubase and just worked on it right away in Famitracker.
Tim’s response to this was essentially “Chris, this is great, but… it’s completely the wrong mood for this stage. Like, not even close to the right mood.” However, Tim was able to take a few ideas from the song – in particular, the progression during the beginning, and melded it with a modified version of part of the Happiness theme to create something closer to what we were looking for. It still needed another section to tie it together though, so he sent it back over to me. I ended up adding the interlude section between the original two parts, and finally we had “Ascension”.
This song brings up another common theme that we’ve tried to incorporate into our soundtracks – utilizing motifs; in this particular soundtrack’s case, the Happiness theme. For another example of this, listen to the third section of “Patience”, the theme for Angry Incinerator. This part is a reprise of the verse melody from the main theme put into a minor key to give it a darker feel. This concept stemmed mostly from Tim’s admiration of classic video game music composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo who used similar techniques in their own work. Being a music geek, I was of course fully on board with this idea.
Well, this mostly wraps up my experience creating music for Happiness. I’m currently working on music and sound effects for our next game, Revahlen, and since Tim is selfishly spending too much time actually creating the game to help with the music, I’ve got my work cut out for me. So far, it has been a rewarding experience, and Revahlen is presenting all sorts of new challenges – but I’ll leave that for the next blog entry.